Fear, lies and abuse: the private school cover-up

A longer version of my article published in The Times, 3 April 2017

It is, they say, good to tell the story. Let it out: nightmares are best cured by daylight. But what do you do next? Three years ago I decided to come out as a survivor of abuse, physical and psychological, at boarding school. I’m a journalist, so I did what comes naturally: I published an article in a magazine. I told how I had returned to my famous prep school, where a police investigation had begun. Ashdown House had made the front page of the Daily Mail – ‘‘Boris school at the centre of probe into sexual abuse’ – because Boris Johnson, Damian Lewis and the Queen’s nephew David Linley had been there.

In the piece I detailed some of those abuses, the emotional and the physical violence that tinged all our lives. I told about Mr Keane, the angry young teacher who used to take us by the ears and throw us around. In calmer moments, Keane would give us sweets in return for a fumble inside our corduroy shorts. I made some wider points about the stream of stories emerging about similar schools, and the astonishing fraud practised on rich parents by the boarding school industry in the 20th century, in persuading them that their children would be cared for and safe. All the evidence – with scandal following scandal – now seemed to show that the children in the schools of the privileged were as preyed upon as those in the worst council-run care homes.

The reaction to my story was immediate – and shockingly personal. “You’re a class traitor,” said one friend, whose son had just started at Eton. I thought she might have been joking – but she wasn’t the only one. A few days after publication I was at a smart Edinburgh art gallery party, standing with a glass of free wine in a group of people I vaguely know. “Don’t stand too close to Renton!” one of them, an old Etonian businessman, suddenly announced, grabbing my arm. “He might put his hand down your trousers!” Most of the group chuckled.

This is – for anyone who needs the explanation – is a stiff-upper-lip joke. You may have to be posh to get it. If you care, or object, you’re not really one of us. At heart, it says, “let’s not be too serious about things, old chap”. Showing excessive emotion, revealing one’s private troubles to the wider world is a failure, almost a blasphemy. “”It isn’t not what we do,” said an elderly relative of my revelations. These attitudes, some would say, are what made Britain great and kept the establishment in power. Others might say they are the source of an awful lot of unhappiness.

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